Chilly Tombstones a Walk Into Noir Grittiness
The first thing one should know going into a screening of A Walk Among the Tombstones is that it is the anti-Taken, an old school noir procedural where Liam Neeson is more interested in using his brain to solve a crime than he is in firing off a never-ending supply of bullets in lieu of actual detective work. The second thing to know is that the film, based on the book by Lawrence Block, is written and directed by Scott Frank, the guy who’s had a hand in a litany of superb thrillers including Dead Again, Get Shorty, Out of Sight, Minority Report and The Lookout.
Both of these are very, very good things, the resulting adaptation of the Block best-seller an engrossing, intelligently constructed mystery of murder, forgiveness and redemption that is as cold and as bleak as a winter wind rampaging across a sand-swept plain. It is a dark journey into despair and abnormality that is both loathsome and hypnotic, the film traveling in pain, reveling in despair and finds joy in the suffering of the innocent. It’s gruesome, nasty stuff, and while light and levity do exist finding solace in either of them oftentimes comes at a tremendous price.
Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a former NYPD Detective and recovering alcoholic who retired when an act of drunken heroism resulted in the death of an innocent. He works now as a freelance, nonprofessional investigator for hire, taking cases on a person-by-person basis based on his personal assessment of those asking as well as a gut reaction as to the importance of what it is they are asking for.
So when Peter Kristo (Boyd Holbrook), a war veteran and recovering addict Scudder knows from A.A., asks him to meet with his wealthy, blood-thirsty drug dealer older brother Kenny (Dan Stevens) the retired detective isn’t initially interested. But after the revenge-seeking trafficker tells his story things begin to change. Scudder’s dander is raised upon hearing about how Kenny’s wife was abducted, held for ransom and then chopped up into little bits, her remains stuffed into the trunk of a ratty abandoned car. It’s not the money that leads him to take the case, it’s the principal behind it, and if the detective can solve this mystery then maybe his time kicking alcohol and trying to be a better man hasn’t been all for naught.
Violence has weight in the movie. When a gun fires the chaos it causes is deafening. Scudder acts decisively, with intent, and it isn’t so much that he is without fear but instead that he has stopped caring about his own wellbeing. Frank depicts things with stark frankness, painting things in a sea of blacks, whites and deep, soul-penetrating grays, the ominous stench of doom layered over every clue and every revelation. The director calls upon the ghosts of Frankenheimer, Lumet, Lang and Tourneur (as well as paying deft homage to the still vibrant, and obviously very much alive, works of Fincher, Demme and Hill) as he navigates Block’s literary terrain, every stone hiding a potential landmine and every door leading to prospective oblivion.
But, more to the point, the filmmaker allows Scudder to investigate. He follows clues. He takes his time. He puts two and two together and realizes four isn’t necessarily the answer he’s aiming for. He understands the men he is looking for are monsters, barely human, no longer doing what they are for monetary gain but because they are enjoying the carnage, reveling in their own bloodlust as if it is the only thing worth living for. Scudder knows what it will take to end this but still holds that justice can be exacted without a lust for revenge fueling it.
It all works beautifully up until, of all places, the climax, and while everything is expertly staged and suitably thrilling (not to mention insidiously disturbing), Frank makes a curious thematic choice that’s too on the nose to be entirely satisfactory. Juxtaposed against a dramatic, all-too-solemn reading of the A.A. 12 steps, Scudder goes up against those he’s been tracking pondering the moral consequences as he does so. Sometimes this works with fiercely amazing exactitude, others it feels more heavy-handed and didactic than it does anything close to resembling compelling. It’s so hit-and-miss it’s impossible to know if I loved the movie or was frustrated by it, the great and the mediocre crashing against one another sometimes at the exact same time.
Be that as it may, overall A Walk Among the Tombstones earns high marks. While not quite up to the same level as Frank’s last directorial effort The Lookout, much like it this is a confident, intelligently constructed motion picture made with care, passion and understanding. It assumes the audience has a brain and won’t be afraid to follow the protagonist into the darkest corners of the human condition. Superbly lensed by Mihai Malaimare Jr. (The Master), eerily scored by Carlos Rafael Rivera, featuring awesome production design work by David Brisbin (Sinister), everything is connected melodiously together in ways that are vital and vibrant.
The anchor, though, is Neeson. This is the actor fully involved, completely invested, not just picking up a paycheck and going through the motions. It is another reminder of just how spectacular he is when he wants to be, taking somewhat cliché and overly familiar dime store detective novel tropes and making something fresh and invigorating out of them. The actor soars, his pain and his euphoria mixing in equal measure throughout as he goes down a path he knows deep down inside can only lead to catastrophe.
Frank closes the movie on a haunting image that likely would have been unheard of just a handful of years ago. Triumph and tragedy collide head-on into one another, giving the film an unflinching ethereal elegance that makes up for many of the issues I had with the actual climax itself. Frank does Block’s character right (this is a serious upgrade over 1986’s 8 Million Ways to Die, let me tell you), and for my part if he decided to follow up A Walk Among the Tombstones with another of Scudder’s adventures I’d be first in line to see how it would turn out.
Film Rating: 3 out of 4